A Rough Start: RIP Jäger

It’s been a very rough first week, definitely not going to go down as a highlight of our travels.  After crossing into France, we continued on to Belgium where we stopped for the night.  We were tired and sad and not really feeling particularly excited about anything.  The dogs were restless and confused and the cats just plain pissed off about not being allowed out of the caravan.  No one slept well and obviously the puppies adventures the next day didn’t really improve anyone’s spirits.

I spent a lot of the afternoon trying to decide where to go next, as while last year truck stops were a godsend, this year they will prove more challenging for more then one night at a time because we just have so many damn dogs.  We were already down to our last bit of funds, and we needed someplace we could park up and sit tight until the end of the month, when I will get paid and we can make our way to Hungary as planned.  

This time I used an app called iOverlander, where people can pinpoint all sorts of camping spots, from major sites to fields along the side of the road for wild camping.  We had some great luck with this app last year, and some not so great luck (one memorable night I used the app to direct us down a one lane dirt road, across a bridge, and into a gate that clearly went no where.  Turning around was a major issue, and it was past midnight and we were tired and grouchy, not to mention had two guests with us so there was a lot more grouchy to go around.  We had to open the gate for Travis to back up and manoeuvre our way out of there, and we forgot to close it again after all the drama…. To this day we feel guilty and often will bring it up as a prime example of why I am the world’s worst navigator).  After some searching along our general route south, I lucked out on a wild camping spot called “parking lot with a great view.”  The picture looked good and the write up encouraging so we decided to make for it the next day.

That night, I noticed that Jäger wasn’t his usual cheerful self.  He looked lethargic and a little ragged and just didn’t seem as interested in things as he normally would.  Travis took a look and we debated about whether or not a vet would be open nearby at that hour.  We decided to see if he was still eating (always hard to tell if one individual cat is when there are so many), so took him in to the car and offered him wet food, which he happily ate.  He had a snuggle and a purr with Travis, then curled up at the foot of the passenger seat and went to sleep.  Aside from the lethargy, there was no sign of anything being wrong, it was only that we know him so well that we noticed he wasn’t his normal self, and I almost wondered if he was just depressed a bit from being stuck inside the caravan.  We decided we’d take him to a vet in the morning if he still seemed off.  

Two hours later, Travis went to give him a pet, and found him cold to the touch… he was gone.  To say we were shocked is an understatement…. We’re still struggling to understand what signs we missed that indicated anything that would have taken his life so quickly.  He was only a little over a year old and had always been in perfect health.  He’d showed no signs of coughing, sneezing, nor was he running a temperature and his eyes and gums had all looked good (of course I checked those things when I first noticed he was so unusually quiet).  He was eating and drinking and we are at a loss to explain how he could have slipped away from us that way.  The suddenness of it all has left us reeling, and until today, I haven’t even been able to contemplate sharing the news. 

Jäger was, as Travis put it yesterday, the life of the party.  Not only was he a constant companion to us whatever we were doing, but he was Uncle Jäger to the puppies, he even won over Moomkin, and was Kamikaze’s best friend.  I honestly don’t know who is more lost without him, us or the animals, and it seems like we’ve all spent the last week moving through a fog, unable to understand such a sudden loss of our precious Jäger.  There aren’t any words that I can write to capture our profound grief, so I will just leave it at this: we miss him, every second of every day.  And we feel lucky that we got to have the time we did with him, even if it was far, far too brief.

We woke up the next morning in a daze and barely speaking, and set off for the camping site in Germany.  When we got there, it seemed a little bit like fate.  The day after we lost our bunny Sami last year, we ended up at a beautiful lake on the German-Austrian border, where we laid her to rest.  Jäger had been Sami’s favourite, and as I approached the lake for the first time, I knew this was where we would lay our baby to rest this year as well; a fitting place of beauty as perfect as he had been.

The rest of the week has gone by without us taking much notice.  We wake up in the mornings and walk the dogs before settling them down for the rest of the day while the park gets busy and people and other dogs come through.  In the late afternoon, we leash everyone up for our long walk and take them down the mountainside to the lake where, one by one, we let them have a swim or play along the water’s edge.  

The first day there were some ducks in the water fairly close, and Dobbie, having never seen a body of water in his life, lept after them without pausing and took one hell of a dunking… I’ve never seen anything as funny as his shocked face when he surfaced and paddled over to dry land.  None of the puppies seems overly excited about the prospect of swimming, though Balkan could spend hours splashing the shallows and trying to catch the splashes in his mouth.  Nibble, when we take her along with us (her old joints can’t take the strain of that walk every single day), submerges herself in the lake and floats along like a big fluffy otter.  Wasi, who I convinced to join me for a sort of swim on day two, hasn’t forgiven the water since and he only takes a drink after tip toeing to the edge, lowering his body all the way to the ground, and stick his tongue out as far as it will go for a lick before backing up hurriedly as if the water is going to leap up and swallow him whole.  He’s a bit of a drama queen for sure.  Syn and Nefsi both love a swim along the shallows, and Moomkin remains aloof from it all, though we have learned that he likes to watch Travis skip rocks across the lake and will even have a little chase to the edge before watching it disappear.  All in all, they are happy and content, even if having to stay on leashes all the time is hard for everyone.

Travis takes the five adults and I walk the four puppies, in theory because I can train them to walk properly.  To give them credit, they are not horrible for dogs that have had little to know leash training, and with the assistance of haltis on all but the mastiffs, everyone walks without dragging us all over the place.  Slade is definitely the best puppy, he accepts the halti without complaint and walks in a perfect heel though I have no idea where he learned that from.  Zima and Dobbie tolerate the haltis, having figured out that there’s no leaving the caravan without them so they mean walks and playtime even if they are annoying.  Balkan, however, seems to be taking lessons from Wasi, who despite working in a halti almost every day of his life still has to have a battle with it for forms sake when we set off.  Balkan can alternate between walking perfectly or throwing himself on the floor and fighting his face harness with gusto.  It’s hard not to laugh even if it does mean a tangled mess of leashes and dogs and prolongs an already somewhat long and difficult walk.

The cats have given us a run for our money a couple times as well. It’s warmer here then we’d hoped for this time of year and that means windows open in order to breathe at night. Except I’m horrible at remembering to close the damn thing before I take the dogs for their morning walk. On two occasions we’ve come back to cats having escaped and wandering around our parking lot. Once they did this at night, and I spent twenty minutes running around the gravelled lot in bare feet, whispering their names and hissing like a snake trying to get them to come to me without waking up the other campers nearby. I’m sure I looked ridiculous and though Mead came rushing up without hesitation, Moscato had made his way a little ways off and had to scream bloody murder the way he does until I put him safely back inside. If anyone was awake they must have thought I was torturing the stupid animal rather then saving his sorry ass from himself. Kamikaze, of course, being female and ornery, thought the whole thing was game and I tracked her collar bell and glowing eyes up and down the lot, into the trees and back again before threatening to let her be eaten by whatever wild animals roam these parts. That seemed to do the trick, or she just got bored, because she let me pick her up and deposit her back inside while I grumbled about how stupid it is to travel with cats.

I was good about the windows for a few days and then Zima had an accident in the caravan which made me forget yesterday. Came back to Moscato screaming for rescue, again (I don’t know why he goes exploring when he obviously hates it), and the worst possible scenario, Lager missing. Now Lager loves to wander, far and wide, and can often disappear for days at a time back home. While we still had a week planned here, the thought of having to worry about him for any length of time stressed me out and I spent a solid chunk of time calling for him and cursing the fact that I have no memory for important things like closing windows. Travis was too annoyed with me (and obviously worried as well) to join the search and dealt with the dogs instead. Eventually I had to give up, it was too busy and other dogs were everywhere and the chances of Lager willingly emerging into all that were slim. I figured he’d show back up for dinner later and tried to get some rest in the by-then uncomfortable heat. A few hours later I happened to hear the sound of a man whistling for his dog to recall, and I recognised the dog as an older one I’d seen walk by earlier. I wondered if he’d spotted our wayward Lager since he didn’t seem the type to run off, and I rushed down the path for the man to confirm his dog had just chased a black cat into the trees. At least I knew he was around. It took another two hours of waiting, but eventually I heard what I’d been waiting for, the sound of Lager’s pissed off meow in response to my calling his name. I fought my way through trees and bramble and, of course, more thorns, to where he was laying, glaring at me like I was the one who had lifted him bodily out of the caravan and thrown him in to the wild. He clung to me on the walk back, eventually purring with pleasure at my company while I lectured him on the dangers of wandering off in places he doesn’t know. I’d say he heeded my words but I caught him pawing at a window early this morning trying to go out on another adventure so clearly I wasted my breath.

At this point we’re both just trying to hang on till next week when we can make our way to Hungary and our friend, Mark, who we are desperately excited to see. Ideally, there won’t be any more drama, but the likelihood of that is small so stay tuned!

Let the Adventures Begin Again

I thought our first blog of the trip was going to be super boring, a rant about how unhappy we are to have left home and how difficult it is to adjust to meaningless wandering with no schedule again. I should have known better. With nine dogs to keep things interesting, including four very naughty puppies, how could our first day be anything but an adventure?

Today’s adventure took place in Belgium, at a rest stop near Brussels. Using our trusty European Truck Stop app, Travis was able to find a place that had multiple reviews stating an open gate that would lead to a big free area where we could run the dogs off leash for a few hours. As usual, the information was reliable and the dogs spent a happy twenty minutes or so running around and doing their business while Trav caught up with his girlfriend Georgia and I moped around feeling irritable. Eventually, we figured it was time for feeding, since we’d been on the road all morning and had made everyone skip breakfast since it was too busy at the truck stop we spent the night at to safely have all the dogs out at once. Everyone seemed calm, the area seemed secure, so Trav went back to the caravan to get feeds and I stayed to watch the hooligans.

Within minutes, Zima, typically, decided to lead her brothers on a scouting expedition through the wooded areas surrounding our clearing. I followed at first, calling half heartedly to them and glancing back now and again to be sure the older dogs were with me. After getting caught in a couple of pricker bushes, I stopped and realised that Nibble had remained where she was at the gate, intently watching for Travis’s return. Nervous about leaving her where I couldn’t see her when the general public could wander in at any time, I backtracked, reasoning that the puppies wouldn’t get far by the time Travis returned with food, and hungry as they were bound to be, they’d return quickly at the sound of a shaken food bowl… this method worked at home when they wandered out of eyesight after all.

I confidently shook a food bowl and called for Zima and Dobbie a few times, then waited without concern to see the four of them flying towards me, eager for their late breakfast. After a minute or two, I took a few steps towards where I’d last seen their white tipped tails and shook the bowl a little more ferociously, adding in Slade and Balkan’s names and a slightly panicked “PUPPIES,” which we’d used to round them up their entire lives. The adults chowed down while I walked deeper into the woods, and the thorny branches now springing up everywhere. I tried to remind myself that there wasn’t really anywhere for them to get off too, and that they had probably just wandered slightly out of hearing. Travis went in the opposite direction while I started shaking the food bowl constantly and we both called, increasingly desperate and irritated, for our brats. Three or four minutes later, we regrouped where the older dogs had finished eating and agreed that he would take them back to the caravan, change into pants to protect himself from the thorns, while I headed out into the cornfields just behind the woods. Travis’s annoyance was plain, he hadn’t wanted to let them all off at once anyways, and I was trying to cover my concern with a airy comment about how they’d surely be back as soon as we went looking for them properly.

I followed the trail the puppies had created in the tall grass until I reached the cornfield. There was no sign of them anywhere, and only the rustling of the cornstalks breaking up a rather deafening silence. Even the sounds of the nearby highways were muffled in all that corn, and I wished I’d brought Wasi along to keep me company. I wandered back and forth for a few minutes, trying to make a game out of my panic by pretending I was a tracker of old. I scanned the ground for paw prints, confident that four still clumsy puppies would have left an easily followable trail in the deep, impressionable dirt. It took me a few minutes, but I did eventually stumble on a paw print that clearly belonged to a Slade or Balkan. Success, I thought, check me out, tracker extraordinaire! It bothered me a little that there was only one clear print, and none of the jumble of tracks you’d expect from four dogs running together. But I followed the prints I could see every few feet, shaking that food bowl, confident I would stumble onto them at any minute.

Twenty minutes later, with scratches covering every body part, and an itch spreading across my legs and arms from god knows what was on all those thorns and stickers, I broke free of the corn field to a clear walking path. A field of cows were to my right, with an open meadow to my left before it turned in to what appeared to be a Christmas tree farm. The paw prints I’d been following were long gone and after so long struggling along the edge of the cornfield, I was able to orient myself only because the highway was now directly in front of me. The puppies were no where to be seen. I struggled to hold back tears and to silence the berating voice in my head that was reminding me that if they were gone, it was my fault. I spotted our truck stop back to my right and after a few more shakes of the bowl and desperate calls of “PUPPIES,” I headed back. I was trying to reassure myself that they were all microchipped, all had dog tags with Travis’s phone number and our social media tag line, hell they even still had their haltis on so someone would pick them up and get in touch. We’d planned to spend the night there anyways so surely they’d either be found or wander back in at some point in the next few hours.

I braced myself to walk back into the thorns edging the cornfield, wondering if this rest stop had a shower because I was going to need one to wash off all the sweat and whatever poison those prickers had got me with. I could feel blood dripping from the scratches on my legs and sighed at the thought of a pair of my favourite pants gone. It’s crazy what you think about in a crisis isn’t it? About 100 yards along the field, I ran across the start of fencing the truck stop was on the other side of. I glanced up at some trash cans and saw a flash of white… Zima and all three of her brothers were happily digging through what they could reach on the ground. She must have smelled me, because before I could say anything, she looked over and let out a happy bark. All four of them bounced over to the fence line, tails wagging, clearly pleased with themselves and not the least bit stressed from their adventures. They were lucky a fence was between us, because I was torn between overwhelming relief and a very strong desire to beat the lot of them. In the end I just stared for a minute while I took ten deep breaths before shaking the bowl again so they’d follow me and starting along the fence line towards the gate. I had to come off the fence for a while to fight my way back through to the clearing, and I ran into Travis, who promptly jumped over the barbed wire surrounding the corn and went off to round them up. It took me another three or four minutes to fight through the thorns and stickers, and, helpful bitch (literally and figuratively) that she is, Zima reappeared a minute or so in to lead me out… easy for her to do since she could duck under the majority of what was holding me back.

If you’re wondering, there’s no point in scolding them since they had, after all, returned. So we fed them, made a lot of comments to each other about how they’re never coming off their leashes ever again, took stock of our injuries and took them back to the caravan for water and their crate. Exhausted, mentally and physically form the ordeal, I sat down on the sidewalk and was promptly surrounded by happy, not the least bit apologetic puppies. Zima climbed in my lap for a snuggle and I started to laugh… while we definitely will not be repeating this experience (I hope), at least it had forced me to think about something other then missing home. You can always count on the Travelling Menagerie for an adventure!